A life or death reality check

— Teen suicide is on the rise; we must act now

Mensch Thought-Leader of the Month Galit Cohen

In one of the villages where I work in the Eastern Cape, within a period of two months there have been five cases of suicide among young people. 

This is an alarming reality and should be a wake-up call to us all. Mental health is critical for a person’s well-being, yet problems with mental health amongst young people globally are on the rise at an alarming rate. As we know, poor mental health can have significant effects on young people’s lives and can manifest in poor academic performance, difficulty in forming relationships, and increased risky behaviour such as substance abuse and even suicide. It can affect families and will most likely have a knock-on effect for generations to come.

More than half of the South African population are young people aged 15-34. According to UNICEF, 65% of young South Africans have reported some form of mental health issue and a quarter of young South Africans experience depression and anxiety. The South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) has found that up to 20% of high school pupils have tried to take their own lives. Furthermore, the World Health Organization’s latest research shows that globally, teen suicide has become the fourth leading cause of death in older adolescents (15 to 19 years) — a warning that many in this age group are battling with mental health issues with little to no help.

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) provides a comprehensive picture of mortality and disability across countries, time, age, and sex. In an October 2022 article published by News24, The Eastern Cape MEC for Health shared that 14% of the GBD has been attributed to mental disorders, and that experts estimate that by 2030 the three leading GBDs worldwide would be HIV and AIDS, mental illness (particularly depression), and heart disease. In South Africa, statistics show that mental illness is the third-highest contributor to the GBD at 16.5%.

Why do we need specific mental health services for youth?

Due to body changes and brain development during adolescence, as well as the emotional and social challenges young people are facing, youth need a mental health system specific to their needs. Frighteningly, there are very limited services of this kind tailored for youth in South Africa, and even fewer services for youth in rural communities.

We need to provide access to mental health services for youth, reduce stigma, encourage open communication and provide a supportive environment where young people feel valued and accepted.

Responding to this crisis demands collaborative efforts. My organisation, Ripples for Change, recently initiated a Mental Health Forum for young people in the Eastern Cape, where we sit with the Provincial Departments of Health, Social Development and Education, municipalities, non-profit organisations and other stakeholders. The agenda is to create a full referral system that includes in and out of school prevention programmes, counselling services, a diversion centre, psychological and psychiatric services, as well as hospitalisation.

Ripples for Change is also working with The Counselling Hub inCape Town,anotherMensch Net-work member, to encourage open communication about mental health through peer-to-peer programmes in schools, and mentorship programmes with out-of-school youth. 

We continue to advocate for a diversion centre for youth in urgent need of support, and for the opening of a youth wing in psychiatric facilities (private and public). We also help preventative organisations grow to offer their services in more communities. 

How can you help?

Educate yourself: Some people believe that mental health is self-inflicted. This can’t be further from the truth. Educate yourself about the causes of mental health challenges and this will lead to the ways you can help those who struggle. Advocate: Raise awareness and advocate for mental health issues to reduce stigma. Donate: Organisations struggle to fundraise as this topic is difficult to digest. Help them support those in need. Volunteer: If you have the capacity, please remember that some organisations are looking for ongoing/occasional help. Listen to others: Listen to people who struggle, take their concerns seriously and encourage them to seek professional help. Keep your heart and ears open — sometimes all people need is a sympathetic ear. Take care of your own mental health: Prioritise your own wellbeing. If you struggle, please don’t hesitate to ask for help. 

Galit Cohen is the Founder and Director of Ripples for Change, an organisation that works to strengthen rural and semi-urban communities in South Africa, with a focus on the Eastern Cape Province. Galit is also a member of The Mensch Network. Click here to learn more about her and her work.

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